First Impression: Kenrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterlfy”

18 Mar

‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ album cover.

Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was released a week early a couple days ago. I finally managed to give it a listen for the first time last night. I started listening to it at around 10pm. I was still listening to it when I fell asleep sometime after 2am. A whole 4 hours later. I listened to a couple more times when I got up in the morning and have been listening to it most of today. That I gave it a couple of spins on first contact is testament of how immersive the listening experience has been so far. So is the fact that I have voraciously read up on anything related to the album in between listens. That I am sitting here writing about it also speaks to how much the album has hijacked my attention and titillated my curiosity. However, this is not a review per se. But more an attempt to unpack and process some of the initial feelings I had listening to the album in the last 24 hours.

This is one is going to be a doozy.

Even after the repeated rotation I can’t seem to make up my mind (yet) how I feel about this album. I know it is special and I really appreciate its musicality. I just can’t figure out if I love it. But I do know I want to love it, badly. I am also sure that is it a great piece of art. It’s cinematic in its scope and shares the same unfathomable complexity of some of the books I have felt compelled to re-read. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is a demanding and at times challenging listen. And I can’t stop listening to it. And therein lays its genius and appeal for me. With each listen I find myself trying to dig deeper so I can catch every reference, idea and emotion. I’m still hearing new stuff and I’m sure I’ll continue to discover new things weeks from now. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is an album to contemplate and examine as much as it is a groovy album with beautiful musicality. And for me that was as intriguing as it was contradictory. Which I suspect is what Kendrick was trying to go for, especially when you consider the album title itself.

‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is a really evocative title. Not just for an album, but any work of art. Period. The writer in me loves the contradictory nature of that statement. There is so much imagery packed into it. The title seems more literary than anything, and the album seems to fall into this discussion of life and the ills of both success and blackness. Kendrick himself has alluded to it being a play on ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ a novel by Harper Lee that deals with racial inequality and is considered a modern American classic. Kendrick himself has stated that he believes ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ will be taught in university course in the future. No pressure there, I guess.

‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is an album that is as multi-layered as it is richly textured. Musically, contextually and lyrically. It is as colourful as it is monochromatic. It hijacks your attention 80 minutes at a time. Sonically I love the direction that Kendrick went on this album. I found the jazzy and funk influences refreshing. Although from the get go I did pick a sombre and at times melancholic vibe which is an interesting juxtaposition to the funky beats. There are also parts of the album where Hip Hop meets neo soul. And even some spoken word. Admittedly these parts can feel a bit pretentious, if not cheesy. And I can see that putting of those who want that hip-hip, it don’t stop.  But in the bigger picture of the album, it works. T

Contextually and lyrically ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is a lot to process. Even as a black person I found the ‘politics of blackness’ of it confrontational and overwhelming in parts. Although I suspect that might have to do with different nuances of my personal African experience and the wider African-American experience. Kendrick though makes a strong case for the universality of the broader black experience with his comparisons of the Xhosa-Zulu conflict with that of the Blood and Crips gangs of LA in the fantastically belligerent ‘The Blacker The Berry’ which had been released as a single prior to the album release. The ‘politics of blackness” is not the entire focus of the album though. Throughout the album you are can pick up more universal themes like dealing with societal pressure, being lost  and consumed by the situation you’ve been put into, finding yourself and achieving self-fulfilment. Like I said before, this is a layered album. And I am looking forwarding to peeling back those layers over the next couple of weeks.

The highlights so far….

‘Alright’ is the early stand out track for me. Mostly because it has such a positive vibe to it. ‘How Much Does A Dollar Cost?’ is also such an introspective song and resonates the most of all the songs on the album. Finally the interview with Tupac and the explanation of the title knocked me off my feet.

Consider this butterfly pimped.

One more thing ….

‘This dick ain’t freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee …..’


Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Culture Vulture


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3 responses to “First Impression: Kenrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterlfy”

  1. JulyWrites

    March 19, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    They say ask and ye shall receive! Thank you for blessing us with your talents. Love this post.

    Ok I am a huge Kendrick Lamar fan, like huge! But I am confused as hell listening to this album. Kinda makes me feel like I am in an art gallery and everyone around me is oooh-ing and aaah-ing and waxing lyrically about how brilliant the painting in front of us is, and I am just there trying to figure out why I am the only one not seeing the meaning of life hidden inbetween the splashes of orange paint on a canvas like everyone else. *hides*

    I wanna like it, I wanna love it, I ride for K.Dot so hard but I am failing here. Maybe I need to listen to it under the influence of something strong because my sober mind simply does not compute. It feels like how I felt about Lupe Fisaco, at some point listening to him became like trying to do computational maths with a gun held to my head. No bueno.

    Maybe I am too shallow so I should stick to Young Thug and them. Can’t understand half of what Young Thug is saying either but my body knows to drop it down low anyway, and at the end of the day, what more can we possibly we can ask for.

    Sidenote: What did you think of J.Cole and Big Sean’s offering?

  2. Tafadzwa Tichawangana

    March 20, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Wow. I think you articulated some of my own feelings I had about the album beautifully. Especially in the first 48hrs I was listening to it. But I stuck with it and I just figured out something. The poem he keeps reciting in between songs is the ‘hidden meaning of life in between the splashes of orange paint on a canvas’. Each time he recites it, he adds another line & that line becomes the prelude to the next song. And on the final track ‘ Mortal Man’ he recites it in its entirety right before the mock Pac interview. I think this poem is key to “getting” the album. Because it IS the album.

    I also came across this really fleshed out and thought provoking analysis in one of the comments sections outchea on the interwebs …

    To Pimp A Butterfly is the story of where Kendrick was/is in his life post-GKMC:

    — Wesley’s Theory — He doesn’t want to be another Wesley Snipes (i.e. snatched up by critical acclaim and fame at an early age). Young Wesley was featured in a Spike Lee film when he was still considered an avant garde director and in Michael fucking Jackson’s first post-Thriller video for Bad directed by Martin Scorese…that’s pretty famous, pretty fast. Why? What’s the outcome? The government/America/the powers that be — the “Uncle Sam” the woman will get to “fuck you up” referenced later — will come bearing down you. Just like they did Wesley…

    — For Free? — …and guess who the woman talking is portraying during this piece? That’s right she’s America/powers that be. Everything she wants are the things Kendrick doesn’t want to become. Kendrick’s response? “This dick ain’t free”. He doesn’t play by the machine’s rules. And the response from America/powers that be is “nigga you ain’t no King!” Hence, the next track…

    — King Kunta — This track begins the thread of self-doubt masked in braggadocio contained throughout the entire album until he reaches self-actualization — “i love myself!” — at the end of the album when he becomes a Negus. Hence the introduction of the poem that tells his state of mind post-GKMC at the end of this song. This track is critical in understanding this album. He’s becoming to realize he’s a slave to the powers that be and this is his response as a black man. “He’s mad…but he ain’t stressin!” He’s accepted his fate. And what happens when you accept your fate to the powers that be? You become…

    — Institutionalized — This song is his justification for why he’s become “institutionalized” — i.e. giving into fame/powers that be for the sake of his art — and reasons why he will NEVER become institutionalized all the same. Hence Snoop giving the biographical recap of just who Kendrick is. This continues the poem’s (“i remember you were conflicted…”) story. The internal struggle leads to…

    — These Walls — it’s Kendrick’s confession that he has in fact “made love” with the powers that be and its a marriage is one of convenience. This leads to his breakdown. The “I can’t believe myself and who I’m becoming” state of mind that leads to…

    — Alright — the beginning of the “pick himself off the mat” state of mind. But, before he can completely overcome his struggles with doubt, denial and depression, he’s faced with his biggest challenge yet…understanding he is in fact…

    — u — Kendrick’s self-doubt officially becomes self-loathing. He’s taking himself to the woodshed and doing some real self-reflection. This is probably the most straight-forward message on the album. But, he’s trying to overcome this state of depression and reminds himself that he’s gonna be…the beginning of the “pick himself off the mat” state of mind. But, before he can completely overcome his struggles with doubt, denial and depression, he’s faced with his biggest challenge yet…understanding he is in fact…

    — For Sale? — Lucy (or Lucifer) — is enticing Kendrick more than ever by directly letting him know what material possessions the powers that be can provide for him. There’s a reason this is posed as a question in the title. Kendrick doesn’t know the answer. And to discover the answer, he needs to go home to…

    — Momma — Kendrick goes home to be reminded of what’s most important to him and to begin to gain his confidence back. Hence the constant reminder that “i know everything…” throughout the track. Once he realizes he has the answers, he’s ready to take on this burden of fame, etc; however, while he’s home, he realizes that things in his hood still aren’t right. He’s made it, but his hood (Compton) is left behind to deal with the perils that come with poverty, being a black man, etc. His homies thinks he’s changed and start playing…

    — Hood Politics — This song begins with what is one of Kendrick’s OGs making fun of what Kendrick has become and they barely recognize who he is now. And with that, Kendrick begins to “fight back” and his defense mechanism is to remind all of these guys who thinks he’s changed that they are “boo boo”. However, what if they are right? And if so, the question is…

    — How Much A Dollar Cost? — A deep question, and again, no answer is given. But what’s key is Kendrick’s confidence is beginning to show flashes of its old self. Going back home has Kendrick asking himself the right questions and with the help of the OGs/family/his girl/religion, he has a renewed sense of purpose and pride (black pride to be specific). It’s also important to contextualize the ’94 ‘Pac influence again. ’94 ‘Pac was arguably one of the most known “black” revolutionaries of his time — Farrakhan was still foremost — and it’s clear the Kendrick is beginning to sense the same responsibility to his community. And much like ‘Pac in ’94, he has the vision and purpose, but no answer…

    — Complexion — This is what I’d imagine is his ode to black pride and will go down as one of Kendrick’s definitive tracks whenever his career is complete. What’s THE most powerful moment of this track is the inclusion of a woman, which is a fantastic as it reinforces the notion of black women being just as important to black community and culture as the homies he’s trying to reach. And now, think about the single cover for the next track (a woman breast feeding…)

    — The Blacker The Berry — This phrase is commonly referred to reinforce black pride in black women and their complexion (remember this song?). Again, an exploration of black pride, but also an acknowledgment and act of consciousness. He now knows he’s a hypocrite as much of his views conflict with and even oppose one another. This is again another layer of his renewed responsibility to continue to ask tough questions without providing answers. He hopes to get the answer later (this is why the ending is sooooo important)…

    — You Ain’t Got To Lie (Momma Said) — Through going home — hence the Momma Said in the title) — he discovers purpose, renewed confidence, pride in his community, pride in his race, etc. and now he’s nearly reached the stage of self-actualization: realizing exactly WHO he is “you ain’t got to lie to kick my nigga” (i.e. be yourself) and most importantly…love yourself.

    — i — This is his moment of self-actualization. He’s ready to carry the torch. But again, this comes with a burden. He’s shunning fame/powers that be and doing things his way (there’s a reason this was chosen as the initial single. It was this story carried out in real life…he shunned expectations when this single was released last year). However, with this power comes great responsibility. He’s ready to lead. And as with any man looking to lead his people, he has accepted his fate, and he accepts the fact that he is a…

    — Mortal Man — Kendrick has accepted his responsibility, found his purpose and now (as anyone must do when they assume the mantle), he’s seeking guidance. He knows who he is. But he still doesn’t have the answers. And in seeking to get the answers, he presents ‘Pac with his backstory — THE SIX-PART POEM — and hopes to get answers and wisdom…who was the ultimate mortal man in hip-hop? Tupac Shakur.

    No answers are yet given, but this is a story of how they (America/powers that be/your own self-doubt) tried to “pimp” (lose self-identity and self-worth for material gain) a “butterfly” (a beautiful and now powerful black man).

  3. Tafadzwa Tichawangana

    March 20, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    2014 Forest Hills Drive had to grow on me. But I love it now. ‘Loves Yours’ speaks to me on so many levels hey. As for Big Sean ,Dark Sky Paradise is probably the easiest and catchiest listen. I think he has actually improved as rapper although he can be a bit gimmicky with his bars. ‘One Man Can Change The World’ is such a beautifully executed song though. You can feel the Kanye influence all over it.


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